Thursday, May 17, 2012

Manager-Time, (Home)Maker-Time

One of the most useful pieces of productivity advice I’ve found is Paul Graham’s maker-time/manager-time article.  For creative work, the actual creating seems to take four-hour chunks to reach momentum and sustain useful effort, while managerial tasks resolve in an hour or less.   

Whenever I was writing a big appellate brief that would take a few days, I went into full-on maker mode: four-hour chunks of morning, afternoon, and after-dinner work.  I usually holed up in a conference room and set my out-of-office e- and voice-mail so that no one could find me and knock me out of the groove.  The most efficient way to do small things was to chunk it up and spend one marathon day each week returning the last four days’ worth of increasingly irate messages.

Trying to do both types of work generally meant that nothing got done efficiently.  Venkatesh Rao talks explains the problem here.  

This is his book.  I am halfway through it.  I like it a good deal, which is strange, since I understand it not at all.   See here for more:
Years ago, I used to knock out 2-3K words or more per writing session without too much difficulty.  Since it’s frustrating having one’s posterior go numb right in the middle of a great scene, I only wrote places that were quiet or comfortable.  I never could work in the hard chairs and bustle of a coffee shop.  My preferred places to write are in the library and in my bed. 

As documented elsewhere, motherhood changes things.  While I daydream about snuggling into an easy chair in a quiet library corner, the idea of spending four hours away from my kid makes me vaguely ill.  Sarah Hoyt wrote this post about being a mother that sounded so much like my experience I got chills:  
It gets weirder when they’re born.  There’s not only a sense of crushing responsibility – you brought him into the world.  What are you going to do about it? – but a sense of being “divided.”  Your soul – for lack of a better word – is riding along in two bodies.
I’m glad she said it, because I would have felt melodramatic explaining it this way by myself.  But that’s exactly how I feel.  And even though there are times I get bored doing crafts, or annoyed at the whining, or desperate for a break, there’s a part that misses her any time the child isn't around.  I miss her when she’s at school or at grandma’s house or in time out.  I'm miss her when she’s sleeping, or when I’m sleeping.  It's weird. 

So those delicious four-hour chunks of creative time—33% of her waking hours in a day—aren’t on the agenda anymore.  

Before my 3/4-time work-at-home job started, I had a great run of novel work during the one daily chunk of maker time that motherhood allows—the last few hours before my night-owl family wakes up.  Work eats the morning maker chunk now.  So I’m spending lots of effort at writing throughout the day, only to have the needle skip when I'm asked to sip imaginary tea or comb out a pony's pink hair.  And after fighting my way through an hour or two, having less than a thousand words to show for it.  

But you know what?  Even as work takes more and more maker-time, the less it seems to matter to the novel.  As nice as it was to hole up at home for awhile, it’s nice to get out again too.  It’s fun being a lawyer, especially when you're doing a good job.  I have a good handle on my new area of law.  I like being forced to meet new people I wouldn’t meet in daily life, having to think on my feet in a courtroom, and the thrill of a win.  I like driving all over the state to different small-town courthouses, and the quiet hours driving through the desert in between, my thinking time.  And the novel work feels more like a refreshing break, less like a daily grind.  

(c) Jim Bahn via flickr
Today I had a fun agency hearing, drove 418 miles, saw 6 turkey vultures, spent four hours thinking about a scenes for this year’s novel and plotting next year’s big project, listened to G.K. Chesterton’s Short History of England, and still managed to spend 7 hours with the child.  Wonder of wonders, I even wrote a blog post, which tends to get kicked to the back of the line.  And I’m excited as all get-out for tomorrow’s novel-writing session, even though it will happen at the kitchen table in between getting out popsicles and opening Play-Doh lids and cleaning up spills. 

So while I'm inclined to be petulant about my lost maker time, I have to admit that things are still working.  I have less time to write, but I think the work I’m doing is better.  I’m enjoying it more.
There’s a great speech by John Cleese about making space for play in your creative process, and how the energy of play fuels our creative drive.  I think maybe, for me, work is my play.  

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